Don Gibson Biography

One of Country Music's Most Prolific Songwriters

Portrait of Don Gibson
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Donald Eugene Gibson was born on April 2, 1928, in Shelby, N.C., about an hour west of Charlotte. His father was a railroad worker who died when Gibson was just two years old, and his mother remarried in the early 1940s. He stopped attending school after the second grade. 

The youngest of five children, Gibson's family got by as sharecroppers, but he detested farm work even as a child. He wanted to get away from the farm, but his shyness and his stutter held him back until he escaped his emotional insecurities through music.

He imagined himself as a performer and he bought a guitar and learned a few chords when he was 14. He was soon hanging around with other guitar players and he picked up what they were playing. He was earning an income as Shelby's resident pool shark at the time. 

Early Career

Music was eventually Gibson's ticket out of Shelby. He was approached by fiddle player Ned Costner when he was still a teenager and the two started jamming together. Guitarist Curly Sisk joined and the trio began playing at Sisk's boarding house on Saturday nights. They called themselves the Sons of the Soil.

Gibson was 16 and Sisk was 14 in 1948 when they were hired as a duo to perform on WOHS, a local radio station. Gibson played bass and eventually started singing. They added a trumpet, a fiddle, and accordions, and they renamed themselves the Hi-Lighters, but the gig paid only in exposure so Gibson earned a living doing odd jobs.

Neither of the boys imagined that their act would or could go beyond WOHS until radio salesman Marshall Pack visited the station and heard them play. Pack was impressed, especially with Gibson's singing, and he convinced Mercury Records to give the group an audition. They released four songs as the Sons of the Soil.

The group broke up in 1949. Gibson formed the King Cotton Kinfolks, who became regulars on "The Tennessee Barn Dance" radio show. He signed a solo recording contract with Columbia Records in 1952 and recorded 12 songs over the next two years.

Gibson began focusing on songwriting when his contract with Columbia ran out. He was writing regularly when one of his original songs, "Sweet Dreams," impressed his friend Mel Foree, who worked for Acuff-Rose music publishers. Foree arranged a performance with an Acuff-Rose executive, who in turn offered Gibson a publishing contract. He accepted and made sure the contract also included a chance to record. He released his debut single "Sweet Dreams," which became a Top 10 hit.

And Then Stardom

After signing with RCA Victor in 1957, Gibson issued his first single with the label, "Oh Lonesome Me," a year later. It was a monster hit, spending eight weeks atop the country charts and crossing over into the pop Top 10. He made his first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry that same year. 

Gibson scored 11 Top 10 singles between 1958 and 1961, and the songs he was writing for other artists became wildly popular as well. He'd become one of the most influential composers of his time.

Gibson's popularity boomed in the early 1960s, but he was starting to slow down by the end of the decade. He still had the occasional Top 10 hit, but he was suffering from alcohol and drug abuse in the late 1960s.

Fortunately, he cleaned up his act and returned to music in 1971. He transferred to Hickory, owned by Acuff-Rose, and earned a Top 10 hit with "Country Green" in 1972. The next year he had his last No. 1 hit with "Woman (Sensuous Woman)" and he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

He also had success with a few Top 40 duets with Sue Thompson. Gibson released a string of mediocre hits throughout the rest of the 1970s and '80s. He toured and performed regularly at the Grand Ole Opry in the '80s and '90s, and several hits compilations from the course of his career were released.

Gibson was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. He died on November 17, 2013, of natural causes. He was 75 years old.

His Legacy

Although Gibson was a talented performer, he once said, "I consider myself a songwriter who sings rather than a singer who writes songs." Gibson was nicknamed the Sad Poet because his songs frequently spoke of loneliness and unrequited love. His song "I Can't Stop Loving You" has been recorded by more than 700 artists, including Ray Charles. Neil Young recorded "Oh Lonesome Me" on his 1970 album After the Gold Rush.

The Don Gibson Theater opened in 2009 in Shelby. Originally built in 1939, the theater features an exhibit on Gibson's life and career. He was posthumously inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2010.

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